Many Latin American and Caribbean countries have made efforts in the last decade to reduce poverty. However, despite some progress, more than 70million people were living on less than US$1 a day and levels of social inequality and disparities in wealth remained high. According to the UN Development Programme, Latin America remained the most unequal region in the world.
Marginalized and dispossessed communities in rural and urban settings in many countries continued to be denied their rights to health care, clean water, education and adequate housing. This already critical situation risked being exacerbated by the global economic crisis.
In relation to health indicators, figures published by the UN Population Fund showed that the Dominican Republic and Guatemala were among the countries with the lowest level of spending on public health care – a mere 1.7 per cent and 2 per cent of GDP respectively.
This was in stark comparison with Cuba which spends 6.9 per cent of GDP on health and the USA where spending stood at 7.2 per cent of GDP. Nevertheless, thousands of people in the USA remained without health insurance, with many poor and marginalized people finding it difficult to access adequate health care.
Most countries in the region have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. However, in the USA, a notable exception in the region, the death penalty and deprivation remained inextricably interlinked; the vast majority of the more than 3,000 people on death row are too poor to pay for legal representation of their choice.
In April, the US Supreme Court issued a decision that execution by lethal injection did not violate the US Constitution. Executions resumed in May after a seven-month hiatus. By the end of the year, 37 prisoners had been put to death, bringing to 1,136 the number of executions since the USA resumed judicial killing in 1977.
The Supreme Court’s decision is notable for the separate opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who has served on the Court since December 1975 and has therefore witnessed the entire “modern” era of the death penalty in the USA. He wrote that his experience had led him to the conclusion that “the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment”. He added that racial discrimination continued “to play an unacceptable role in capital cases”.
In December, Saint Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the English-speaking Caribbean since 2000. Charles Elroy Laplace was hanged on 19 December 2008, ending a 10-year moratorium. He had been convicted of murder in 2006 and his appeal was dismissed in October 2008 for being filed out of time.
Too many governments have contributed to worsening standards of policing by closing their eyes to reports of torture or unlawful killings. Some have even sought to justify such abuses as necessary in the current public security climate. Independent police complaints commissions or police ombudsmen offices remained largely confined to the USA and Canada. In the few other countries where such bodies exist, they continued to be largely ineffective.
In some countries, such as Guatemala and Brazil, more evidence emerged during the year of the involvement of police officers and former officers in the killing of suspected criminals. In Pernambuco in
Brazil, 70 per cent of all homicides in 2008 were attributed to death squads or so-called extermination groups mostly composed of agents of the state, particularly police. In Guatemala, the killing of hundreds of young men reminded many of the social cleansing campaigns of the 1990s when street children suspected of being petty thieves were tortured and killed. The targeting by police and others of groups of young men and boys from poor communities on the basis of their appearance and age aggravated feelings of exclusion from mainstream society.
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